Managing safety at sea

Anderson, Phil (2003) Managing safety at sea. DProf thesis, Middlesex University. [Thesis]

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Commercial shipping is very old – certainly there is evidence of trading ships existing more than 2500 years before the Christian era. To a very large extent the shipping industry has been self-regulating throughout this very long history. Traditionally ships would be subject to the laws, rules and regulations of the flag state to which they belonged. They would also be obliged to comply with the local laws of the countries they visited. During the period from the early 17th century to the latter part of the 20th century it was quite true that ‘Britannia ruled the waves’. The Merchant fleet of Great Britain dominated international trade – along with the fleets of other colonial powers such as France, Holland, Spain and Portugal. The merchant marine was a vital factor in the development of international trade, the expansion of the Empire and the prosperity of the nation – as well as a number of individual businessmen. Anyone who had sufficient funds could purchase a vessel and enter the business of shipping. Britain became a centre for the development of maritime law and marine insurance and since it was so influential in international trade it was very much the British Rules that applied internationally. The ships were often armed with cannons and carried marines – they were run very much along the disciplined lines of the Royal Navy. Against this background the Shipowners were allowed to run their companies with little supervision by the government – provided they obeyed the law. International maritime conventions started to be developed during the late 19th century and early 20th century. However it was not until the years following the Second World War, with the formation of the United Nations that formally agreed sets of rules and regulations started to appear which would be recognised and complied with by all signatory nations. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, 1982 (UNCLOS) establishes the general rights and obligations of the flag State. Within the United Nations two specialised agencies deal with maritime affairs; the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO), and they have a responsibility for devising and developing conventions and guidelines under which ships can be regulated. In general, matters concerning safety at sea, pollution prevention and training of seafarers are dealt with by IMO, whereas the ILO deals with matters concerning working and living conditions at sea. While IMO and ILO set the international regulatory framework for ships, each member State bears the responsibility for enforcing the international conventions it has ratified on the ships flying its flag. However, the industry was still allowed to regulate itself within the confines of these conventions once ratified by their flag states as well as other elements of the domestic law of that country. Up until the period following the Second World War almost all merchant ships would fly their own national flag. However, led by the United States, an increasing number of Shipowners re-registered their ships and their companies in countries where their application of rules and regulations were a little more relaxed or provided tax advantages – these were the so called Flags of Convenience (FOC’s) or Open Registries. From inception the FOC’s were perceived by many as an opportunity to lower the very high, but costly, standards that had been maintained on board the national flag fleets. Even so, during those post war years there were fleets to rebuild and trades to reestablish which meant that the merchant ships were fully employed in helping to bring the world back to normality. In the late 1960’s, when I first went to sea, a 15,000 ton general cargo ship would typically have a complement of 65 officers and crew on board. Most officers, if not crew members, would be on long term company contracts and it was not at all unusual for a seafarer to remain with the same family shipping company for his entire career. The loyalty, which was reciprocal as between employer and employee, was very strong – the ships were well run with good, well-qualified and motivated seafarers. However, by the late 1980’s and into the 1990’s the industry was changing almost beyond recognition. During this period there seemed to be an explosion of accidents that manifested themselves in a measurable sense as marine insurance claims. Insurance premiums rose between 200 and 400% during a three-year period – reflecting the enormity of the problem. A number of very high profile incidents appeared on the front pages of the national press and headline news on T.V. – in 1987 the cross channel ferry ‘Herald of Free Enterprise’ turned on her side in the harbour entrance of Zeebrugge in Belgium with 190 people killed; in 1989 the dredger ‘Bow Bell’ collided with and sank the river boat ‘Marchioness’ on the River Themes which resulted in 51 deaths; in the same year the super-tanker ‘Exxon Valdez’ ran onto rocks in Alaska spilling many thousands of tons of oil into the sea; in 1990 a fire broke out in the passenger ship ‘Scandinavian Star’ which caused the deaths of 158 people. There were many more high profile incidents which occurred during that period – there were many more very serious incidents which were not so high profile but equally shocking; dozens of large bulk carriers disappeared with all hands, within a matter of weeks of the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster in 1987 a collision occurred in the Philippines which resulted in the inter-island ferry ‘Dona Paz’ sinking with the loss of over 4000 lives. For reasons that will become apparent the international shipping industry was perhaps no longer capable of regulating itself and action was needed to reverse the downward spiral of maritime calamity. It was against the background of this catastrophic situation that I first became involved in looking at the problem of maritime accidents and felt compelled to consider what I could contribute to help remedy the situation.

Item Type: Thesis (DProf)
Additional Information: A project submitted to Middlesex University in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Professional Studies.
Research Areas: A. > Work and Learning Research Centre
B. > Theses
Item ID: 2657
Depositing User: Repository team
Date Deposited: 16 Jul 2009 15:25
Last Modified: 30 Nov 2022 02:41

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